When the crafters of the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) set out discipline procedures to be followed with students with disabilities, it appears they had in mind the students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) who are most often served in special self-contained settings. The children and adolescents with the most severe disabilities and who are the most disruptive are expected to be those whose misbehaviors are most frequent, intense, and persistent. The intent of the law is that these students be served in the least restrictive environment, that their progress be maintained in their schools' general education curriculum, and that their problems be addressed through behavioral supports tailored to their individual needs. Furthermore, IDEA '97 stipulates that the effectiveness of the interventions used to change the behaviors of concern be documented with data. With this focus on appropriateness and proven efficacy, the framers of the law reached into the repertoire of behavioral principles to mandate that a functional behavioral assessment be conducted to assure the appropriateness of interventions used in the special placements to which these otherwise expellable students were to go. The assessment techniques suggested and the language used are consistent with programming for children with severe disorders whose high-rate misbehaviors may best be modified by carefully applied behavioral strategies.
Yet the youths who committed high-profile school violence in the past several years were not known as the most badly behaved students in their communities or the ones with the most severe conduct disorders. They were boys who seemed normal enough and who had unremarkable histories. There was not a student labeled EBD among them. Perhaps this indicates that class placements for EBD keep the toughest, most frequently volatile students out of trouble and in school. But it also may indicate that the kinds of youngsters who are subject to expulsion for bringing a weapon or drugs to school are not necessarily the same kinds of students for whom traditional behavioral assessments and interventions are most suitable.
Reclaiming the disruptive and alienated youngster may require expanding assessment methodology beyond the direct observation of overt behaviors. Understanding the function that bringing a weapon to school plays for a youngster is essential, but current methods for conducting functional behavioral analyses are not well suited for low-frequency, covert behaviors. To understand the function of an act as infrequent as bringing a gun to school or as secretive as selling or using drugs, it is also necessary to assess such elements as students' social perspectives, beliefs, consciences, and feelings. These are what really drive intolerable behaviors, not merely the antecedent events that trigger them.
The assessment of thoughts and feelings may seem inconsistent with a behavioral evaluation, but in fact it is central to the concept of functional assessment. Once it is acknowledged that the reason behind an aberrant behavior pattern goes beyond its observable antecedents, or hypothesized that an act was motivated by a desire for attention, escape, or self-expression (O'Neill, Homer, Albin, Storey, & Sprague, 1990), the domain of the unobservable has been entered. The observation that a child's disruptive behavior stops as soon as he or she is attended to leads to the inference that there is a nonobservable function for the behavior: the child's desire for attention. Then the teacher can manipulate antecedents, observe resulting behaviors to evaluate the accuracy of the hypothesis, and teach the child alternative, acceptable methods to gain the needed attention. Ultimately, although one can observe the behavioral outcomes of a behavior intervention plan, the hypothesized functions that drive the entire process are nonobservable elements in the domain of thoughts and feelings. …